Elwayville: Branching Out

The apricots bloomed early this spring. They always bloom early—too early. Only twice in the last 16 years have the flowers survived to bear fruit instead of getting knocked out during the annual April freeze.

But this was March, the earliest the apricots have ever bloomed, and their pink white petals blew around together with snowflakes in an afternoon storm. It made me nostalgic, that wet breath of air, and the way the Rocky Mountain seasons roll so fitfully into each other, stopping and starting again. It made me think of trees and all the comfort and companionship they have provided to me, especially in the summertime.

My father spent the last few weeks of his life in a bed in Washington State next to a big picture window where he could watch a plum, a dogwood, a mountain ash and a magnificent copper beech tree swaying in the wind and shining in the sun.

He planted nearly a dozen trees in the house where I grew up on Fairfax Street in Park Hill, including a mountain ash in the side yard and three honey locusts in the front yard (I still drive by to see them sometimes). That day I said goodbye to him, I remembered how he enlisted my brother and me and a couple neighborhood kids to dig the holes for those locusts. When I looked out the window at the purple leaves of the plum fluttering in the light, I thought he picked a good room to die in.

Reach for the Sky

In Forest Parkway, just a block away from Fairfax Street, the evergreen trees once grew more than 50 feet tall, with a thick ladder of branches that made them easy to climb. In City Park to the west, the catalpas seemed like lanky invaders from some tropical region, with long slender pods we tried to throw like boomerangs. And all over town, the crabapples and lilacs would bloom like fireworks in the spring.

I got a job cutting trees around Denver in the summers between college and then between winters when I was a ski bum. I learned how to clear the deadwood, prune to the laterals, and accentuate (not create) that natural arc in the canopy. Best of all I got to see how a Colorado day grows, every day, all summer long.

I was on a crew with a real weather fanatic the summer in June when all the tornadoes came to town. He kept talking about the unstable mix of cold northern air and warm southern moisture as we watched the first clouded horns of twisters dropping down. When they hit my neighborhood, they never actually touched the ground, but just grabbed the evergreens and American elms by the boughs and spun them like tops through roofs, into cars and to tear and tangle the powerlines.

Later, Dad and I walked up to survey the damage. Looking at the giant round holes where the root balls of the trees had been torn from the ground like bomb craters, he told me, “This neighborhood wasn’t even here 80 years ago,” and then he said, “What you think matters is changing all the time.”

What Matters

For weeks I drove through that wreckage to load a truck with saws and then back to work in my neighborhood until the cleanup was done. At least half the team was Cambodian. They pruned trees better than anyone, especially the big trees, with a kind of airless soaring aesthetic and economy of style I can still pick out driving down 17th Ave or Monaco Parkway.

The two best tree trimmers were brothers who might’ve fought against each other in the war. One was regular army and the other was a guerilla, with talisman tattoos around his neck and up his arms. Tha, the guerilla, had flashed me a quick, STFU smile, and said, “You don’t want to know that shit,” when I asked him if he had seen “The Killing Fields,” and how accurate the movie had been.

They were both natural leaders who helped attract a community of other Cambodians to Denver—and to the job—and it felt good to be around them. I liked working to be a part of something that wasn’t just based on family, classmates or neighbors, and that I had to earn it on my own.

I enjoyed working with the trees, basking in their shade, breathing in the breeze, moving up into them and finding little hidden bird and critter homes. I loved the sense of life all around—especially now the idea that someone like my father had planted them, and that through them some part of that life lives on.

I think I want to plant more trees this season. So should everyone.

—Elevation Outdoors editor-at-large Peter Kray is the author of The God of Skiing. The book has been called “the greatest ski novel of all time.” Don’t believe the hype? You can buy it here:

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